Opponents to the renovation of the lower football field at Verona High School scored a procedural victory last evening when the Verona Planning Board decided to not conduct a so-called courtesy review of the project. The decision sets the stage for a full site plan review by either the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
This summer, a group that calls itself Be A Good Neighbor had hired a lawyer to challenge the Board of Education’s assertion that the field work needed only a courtesy review. This is the normal process for school facilities but Robert F. Simon, the attorney from Herold Law of Warren, N.J. who was representing the Neighbors, contended that the lower field was something other than a school facility. In early October, Planning Board Attorney Greg Mascera disclosed that he was looking into the assertion, but Verona Township Manager Joe Martin told the Town Council at its October 20 meeting that, “The Board of Education’s request for a consistency review appears to be reasonable.” In his report to the community this month, Superintendent Rui Dionisio noted that, “The Verona Public Schools has gathered feedback from the Verona Township engineer on the field project design and made appropriate modifications as necessary.” Those modifications included mapping out the installation of an entirely new sewer line from the back of the high school to Grove Avenue to replace a more than 100-year-old pipe that Jim Helb, Verona’s engineer, felt could be compromised by construction.
But at last night’s review, Mascera supported Simon’s assertion about the lower field and told the body several times that Verona would not issue building permits to any plan that had not had a full site plan review. (The Planning Board approved the referendum’s addition to the Verona High School music room at the start of Wednesday’s hearing without requiring a full site plan review.) Simon was at last night’s meeting and identified himself as representing Barbara Bochese and Steven Danieli of 9 Dodd Terrace, Daniel and Diane DePalma of 10 Dodd Terrace, Diane Braschi of 22 Dodd Terrace, Marc Kaplan of 137 Grove Avenue, the Ruberto family of 24 Dodd Terrace, and Daniel Motley of 125 Franklin Avenue. Simon told the Planning Board that, were it to hold the courtesy review, it “will end up muddying the waters in terms of appropriate review”.
In the end, Planning Board members acquiesced to Mascera’s position, while making it clear that a vote for a full site plan review was not a vote on the turfed multi-activity field. “This does not predetermine my vote for or against”, stressed Town Council member Kevin Ryan, who sits on the Board.
Douglas J. Kovats, the lawyer representing the BOE, was clearly dismayed with the Planning Board’s decision. “We knew that we would have some resistance”, he said this morning, “but I didn’t think that the Planning Board would give up an opportunity for the public to learn more about our project.”
The Planning Board now has 10 days to communicate its decision to the state Commissioner of Education, which does not have to accept the finding. The Board of Ed has been in regular communication with the Commissioner’s office, even well before the referendum: School districts must submit long-range facilities plans to the office and it reviews referendums before they are put to a vote. Verona’s referendum passed by a vote of 1,777 to 1,067 on March 11, a margin of 710 ballots. The 2005 referendum passed by just nine votes.
“It’s my understanding that the Verona Board of Ed will continue to do what the voters obliged them to do when they overwhelmingly approved this project,” said Kovats, a partner at Kenney Gross Kovats & Parton in Red Bank who specializes in representing school boards.
It is not yet clear whether the decision by the Planning Board will delay the renovation of the field, which the BOE was planning to complete by the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year. Helb had previously said that the Planning Board, which looks at how projects conform to permitted land uses, would not have an opening on its calendar until January 22, 2015, which would be after the BOE wanted to open the bidding process on the work. The Planning Board’s schedule has been occupied with the Dennis Handel’s project for a mixed-use building at 176-200 Bloomfield Avenue. The Board of Adjustment, which reviews requests to use property in ways that are not consistent with zoning law, meets on the second Thursday of every month and has little on its schedule right now.
Referral to either body does not automatically mean a drawn-out process, as has been the case with the Handel application. In the past three years, both the Planning Board and the Board of Adjustment have heard extremely complex cases with multiple variances in a single evening.